A while back, Bill Maher appeared on The Daily Show and claimed, as a virtual afterthought, that Barack Obama is an atheist.
Obama critics seized upon this because to them it meant he was something far more nefarious than a Jeremiah Wright Christian-slash-evil Muslim fundamentalist: Someone who doesn’t believe in God at all! A heathen! Even some moderate and liberal Christians probably took exception to this.
I did, too, in one sense — I think Obama is more of an agnostic than an atheist. Like many Americans, he identifies as Christian, but isn’t overly, or perhaps even moderately, occupied with it in his personal life.
Otherwise, I agree with Maher’s overarching point, which is that Obama has played up faith as a politician in excess of his personal beliefs. Most presidents do that, except maybe for Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush. It’s part of the game in a country where, despite the ever-rising tide of agnosticism and atheism, we still expect our leaders to listen to, or at least cursorily acknowledge, a higher voice.
By most (if not all) metrics, atheists are the least-trusted people in America. We’re willing to vote for a gay, black and/or female president now (in theory), but an atheist wouldn’t get elected dogcatcher running unopposed at an all-cat resort.
Why is this?
I think it’s because the prevailing wisdom about atheists is that because they have no god, they have no morals. No sense of right or wrong. Nothing to keep them from being uncaged, nihilistic animals at every turn. Funny how that remains conventional wisdom in an age where religious fundamentalists are the ones driving most of the world’s conflict and carnage.
The latter doesn’t describe all, or even most, of the world’s religious people. Likewise, anarchic animalism doesn’t describe most atheists.
My official stance on religion is, “I don’t know, and I’ll never know,” which I guess comes closest to soft/negative atheism. I don’t think gods exist, but I’m not certain of that. (I don’t think anyone has grounds to be certain one way or the other; if they did, there’d be no debate or plurality of beliefs.) What this means in my everyday life is that I practice no religion and don’t follow religious customs. You don’t have to, to have morals and empathy. In fact, some religious people possess neither.
When I make mistakes (which is all the time), I don’t worry about incurring the wrath of God; I worry about the effects those transgressions have on the real, living people with whom I share life. What they think, and feel, matters to me.
This is true of most people who don’t partake in faith. It’s not much different than spirituality, except that the root causes are more tangible. Humanity drives it, not fear of divine retribution.
That’s why, instead of stigmatizing atheism, we should all celebrate it, and should hope more of our world leaders embrace it. The most important thing to understand is this:
Atheists have nothing to die for.
No atheist thinks their tribe of people has a divine right not only to rule the world, but to kill other, “inferior” tribes. An atheist’s foreign-policy stance is not based on laying the groundwork for Armageddon. If anything, they’re the ones who most want to save this planet, because they presume it’s all we’ve got.
And for that, they’re the least-trusted group of Americans.
I see why political hawks might hate having an open atheist in charge, because fear and war are powerful economic engines. But the general population’s reluctance I understand less. Even most religious I people I know are OK with an atheist they know personally and aren’t necessarily down with the hardliners of their sect, but most probably would still shy away from voting for an atheist. Maybe it’s just that there aren’t enough confirmed atheists in the public eye — and those who are tend to define themselves by that characteristic (which can be as alienating as the strongest religious fanaticism) or are not in “serious” lines of work. In any case, secular humanism has a long way to go to reach mainstream American acceptance.
This could be because America is a country defined largely by antagonism and defiance. We cast off the British, enacted Manifest Destiny, nearly split apart over slavery and still fight over states’ rights. Many state and individual philosophies are based on a desire to not be treaded upon, and many an older person has pined for the days “when you knew who the bad guys were.”
Fighting is an intrinsic part of the American identity. We always need an enemy or, at the very least, someone against whom we can judge ourselves favorably. We like to be No. 1. The greatest country on Earth. Defenders of good, defeaters of evil. We want to believe we’re righteous in democracy, in spirit, in philosophy, in firepower. Hell, we even consider ourselves a First World country, because of course there has to be a ranking. We want leaders to ascribe to this philosophy, granted down from the heavens.
We see this in everything from flags to religions to politics to sports allegiances. We’re primally compelled to pick, and stick to, a side.
Atheism undermines that. Atheists are content to believe that everyone is on the same level, that differences are trivial, surmountable and/or the spice of life. They see the virtue of people living together in harmony, regardless of nation or other identities, because everyone ultimately wants the same things in life. It’s indifference to who has the biggest flag, a notion just as unpopular (or worse) as the aforementioned amoral barbarianism.
Of course, it isn’t just religion that drives world conflict, and atheists are just as capable of selfish and destructive politics as anybody. But that’s an issue of individual scruples. As a group, atheists don’t deserve the collective distrust that they get. And like any other group, they shouldn’t have to pretend to be something they’re not.